Indonesian president Sukarno with Fidel Castro, 1960
There is something peculiar about the fervency and near unanimity with which the British left has eulogised Fidel Castro. The regime which Castro led was a one-party state, which persecuted its political opponents, including leftists, and whose trade unions were run by the ruling party. Nonetheless, it gets a better write-up than many eastern European communist states which, by and large, also provided their inhabitants with a greater degree of material security and state welfare than they enjoyed in the years following the fall of the Berlin wall.
Part of what fuels the left’s romantic view of Castro’s Cuba is the very particular role of the Cuban revolution. Castro’s heroic overthrow of the US-backed Batista regime in 1959 opened a new alternative across the Latin American continent. For many, it marked the beginning of the political upheaval of the 1960s. The story of Che Guevara, the rugged Argentinian doctor who trekked across South America on a motorbike is, in the minds of many in the west, part of an aesthetic that includes the cigars and the music as well. The truth is that, across the political spectrum, people seem willing to tolerate lower standards of human rights in places that seem exotic, and far from home.
But the reaction to Castro’s death has revealed something deeper about the continuing legacy of the Cold War in the thinking of much of the British left. Supporting the revolution which liberated Cuba is one thing; defending the regime that followed it is quite another. This defence is usually expressed with reference to Castro’s role in defying American imperialism. Those who seek to explain away its excesses often do so with reference to the hardships and strains imposed by the blockade.
So when pundits talk about Fidel Castro’s death as the end of an era, they only glimpse half of the picture. Celebrating the Cuban regime makes sense in a binary world view, where opposing American foreign policy is the greatest task for the left. Castro may be a 20th century figure, but some of the attitudes revealed by his death also date back to the Cold War.
Perhaps the best illustration of this fact is the celebration of Castro’s internationalism. Under him, Cuba played a pivotal role in defeating Apartheid, sending troops to Angola. It sent doctors to Haiti following the earthquake in 2010, and to West Africa to fight ebola. Following the 1959 revolution, Che Guevara led guerrilla movements in Congo, then Bolivia. And yet in 1968, when the Prague Spring inspired the world with its promise to marry the ideals of communism with political and cultural freedom, Castro unequivocally supported the Soviet tanks which crushed it. Castro’s internationalism was of a very particular kind – it was allied to Moscow and the ‘second camp’.
The distortion of the concept of internationalism is not just a problem on the radical left. When Hilary Benn stood up in parliament last December to support Britain’s involvement in bombing Syria, he invoked the International Brigades – ordinary people, most of them socialists or trade unionists, who went to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He did not mention the fact that the International Brigades were attacked and criminalised by the British government, or that just weeks before he made his speech, a young woman had been sent to prison in the UK after volunteering to fight for the Kurdish PKK.
Internationalism in the truest sense is an independent tradition, built in opposition to the great powers, of solidarity between workers and oppressed groups across borders. If it is to mean anything, it has to apply to the LGBT people that were sent to labour camps in Castro’s Cuba, just as it applies to Palestinian political prisoners, Polish women striking for abortion rights, Egyptian revolutionaries overthrowing Mubarak, Syrian democrats fighting Assad, and militant labour movements in supposedly communist China.
In the coming years, the left will need to reassert that model of internationalism. The real era-ending event of the past few weeks – the election of Donald Trump as US president – promises to turn upside down the basic assumptions of world politics. A world run by Trump and Putin will not map onto the political coordinates of the Cold War, and the only reliable allies in the fight for equality and human freedom will be ordinary people, fighting to build a better world from the bottom up. In that world, we will need a tradition of real left wing internationalism more than ever. And we will have to do better than romantic illusions in regimes like Castro’s Cuba.